Laurel Canyon’s the Troubadour has been one of the most storied spots in popular music. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, local singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and Jim Morrison were regulars at the venue that more or less served as their clubhouse. It was where in 1970, Elton John played his first American shows there – with Neil Diamond and David Crosby in the crowd.
It was also where Geffen Records signed Guns N’ Roses after seeing them in 1986. These days, it’s the spot where both established stars and new artists go for star-studded Grammy parties. But there’s one big problem: It’s facing the biggest threat to its existence since it opened its doors in 1957. Thanks to you-know-what.
The Troubadour is a venue that’s made history in music. And sadly, it might be closing its doors, forcing its owner Christine Karayan to lay off most of her staff, except for two workers, and start a GoFundMe page. The question Karayan asked is: “Are we going to be a footnote in history?”
She explained that they have no shareholders, no funding, and no income whatsoever. And the bills still keep pouring in. It’s a threat many, many businesses are facing as of late. But the Troubadour is something special – a place that (like others) deserves to continue its legacy. So, as we cross our fingers and wish for the best for this almost mythical place, let’s take a look at what the Troubadour offered the world of music during its heyday.
A “troubadour” is a poet and musician who sings tales of romance, at least that’s what it meant in the 11th through 13th century France. In the 20th century, a man named Doug Weston decided to open up a venue for folk artists and singer-songwriters. He called it the Troubadour and referred to the club’s roster as “modern-day troubadours.”
He once told The Los Angeles Times: “The people who play our club are sensitive artists who have something to say about our times.” Before its location on Santa Monica Boulevard, it was a coffee shop on La Cienega. But once it established itself in its new (and current) location, there was no turning back. The acts that were to come were written into the music world’s history books forever.
Comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested on obscenity charges for a set he did on stage at the Troubadour. And it was because he used the word “shmuck.” Hey, it was 1962, after all, and Bruce happened to get arrested more often than not. That night, he came on stage wearing jeans, a pajama top, and a raincoat.
Bruce reportedly said that he wore the coat in case the cops arrested him. Just as he was getting into his bit about marijuana, two undercover cops who were in the audience stood up and told the crowd: “The show is over, ladies and gentleman,” and put Bruce in handcuffs.
Comedian George Carlin, who was younger than Bruce but a friend of his, was also in the crowd and downing beers. At the time, the cops were trying to catch underage patrons and were making everyone show their IDs. Carlin, wasted by that point, started mouthing off to the officers.
The next thing he knew, he was thrown into the paddy wagon where Bruce, the owner of the Troubadour, and a few others were waiting. When Bruce saw Carlin, he asked him what he was doing there. Carlin told him that he told the cops, “I don’t believe in ID,” to which Bruce said, “Shmuck.” He was convicted of obscenity charges two months later.
The Troubadour had a resident band named The Men, and one night after one of their gigs, Bob Dylan came onstage for an impromptu jam session for Troubadour staff only. His improvised performance was said to be “folk-twist.”
It wasn’t long after that night at the club that Dylan made pop music history by switching from folk to folk-rock. Sure, it was a big thing for the protest singer who was known for his folk music. But what made people’s heads turn even more was when Dylan went electric just a year after this performance, in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival.
In early 1964, Jim McGuinn was playing acoustic versions of Beatles songs at the Troubadour. He was then approached by Gene Clark, and the two soon formed a duo, playing Beatles covers. Soon after, David Crosby introduced himself to McGuinn and Clark – also at the Troubadour.
The trio began harmonizing and formed a trio, naming themselves the Jet Set. Clark recalled the moment at the bar, which at the time was called “The Folk Den.” They “went into the lobby and started picking on the stairway where the echo was good, and David came walking up and just started singing away with us doing the harmony part… We hadn’t even approached him.”
The Troubadour wasn’t just a place for new musicians to make their mark in the biz. It was also a place for comedians too (as we saw with the Lenny Bruce and George Carlin story). Another comedian who popped into the club more than once was the late, great Richard Pryor.
On October 12, 1965, the comedy great opened up for another legend, Nina Simone. As it turns out, Pryor had terrible stage fright. In Simone’s autobiography, she noted that she was able to “rock him into calmness” on a frequent basis, too.
On April 11, 1966, the freshly formed group Buffalo Springfield debuted at the Troubadour. It was the band’s first-ever live performance, and it essentially launched the careers of Stephen Stills and Neil Young. That gig led to a 6-week residency at another popular club of the times, the nearby Whiskey a Go-Go.
It was there that the band attracted the attention of a number of record labels, setting off a bidding war. The winner was Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records (the losers were Warner Bros. and Elektra). By the end of that year, Buffalo Springfield recorded For What It’s Worth, and the rest is history.
On June 4th, 1968, Canadian Joni Mitchell made her Los Angeles debut. It was a Tuesday evening, and her performance was “emotionally and stylistically impressive,” as was written in a newspaper a few days later. She played the simple melodies of Circle Game, along with Marci(e), Roses Blue, Michael From Mountains, I Don’t Know Where I Stand, Slowing Down, and Clouds.
A few months earlier, on April 2, Gordon Lightfoot made his own American debut at the Troubadour. His bassist was Chuck Mitchell, Joni Mitchell’s ex-husband.
Poco, the country-rock band originally formed by Richie Furay, Jim Messina, and Rusty Young, arrived late to the Troubadour from a gig in Denver. Once they got to the venue, they found then-unknown comic Steve Martin playing their songs on the banjo to a rapturous crowd.
Poco was formed after Buffalo Springfield disbanded in 1968 and became part of the first wave of the West Coast country-rock genre. As for Steve Martin, well, you know that he went on to become a massive comedy star.
Other stories from 1969 at the Troubadour: In June, Neil Young played his debut solo show in L.A.; in July, James Taylor made his solo debut.
Prior to the Troubadour, Elton John wasn’t experiencing much success. In 1967, he was still going by the name Reg Dwight. But on August 25, 1970, 23-year-old Elton John flew to Los Angeles to make his American debut at the Troubadour.
That night, there were about 300 people in the audience, among them Quincy Jones, Gordon Lightfoot, and David Crosby. Neil Diamond was the first one on stage, and that’s because he was about to introduce the act: “Folks, I’ve never done this before, so please be kind to me,” he said to the crowd.
He went on: “I’m like the rest of you; I’m here because of having listened to Elton John’s album. So I’m going to take my seat with you now and enjoy the show.” Drummer Nigel Olsson recalled: “It was just insane. We were these lads from England that came over, and it was kind of a one-off.”
Their label boss Dick James told them, “Okay, boys, I’m going to send you to America, and this is going to be make-it-or-break-it. If you pull it off, great. But if you don’t, I can get you a job at the shoe shop here on Oxford Street.”
John began his set with Your Song and became a force of nature on stage. There were points where he kicked the piano bench over and fell to his knees. The audience was simply not prepared for what they witnessed.
“It was magical, but it also frightened us to death,” Olsson recalled. John and his two bandmates played eight shows in six nights at the Troubadour, and those performances helped transform him from an odd-named, unknown musician into one of rock’s biggest stars since The Beatles.
The Eagles formed as a band in early 1971, but Henley (from Texas) and Frey (from Michigan) met in 1970 at the Troubadour. Linda Ronstadt recalled asking her friend John Boylan if he could help her put a band together. They walked to the Troubadour on a Monday night and heard a band called Shiloh performing onstage.
Ronstadt asked Henley, the drummer in Shiloh if he wanted to play for on her next tour. She needed a guitarist, too, so she asked Frey, who used to sing with her boyfriend, JD Souther. The guys agreed, and while on the road, they were roomies, hit it off, and started working together. By the end of the tour, they were already forming their own band.
On October 3, 1970, Janis Joplin was at the Troubadour, partying. It was nothing remarkable as she was a frequent patron. But this night was something noteworthy as it was her last night alive. The next day, she was found dead at the Landmark Hotel from an apparent heroin overdose.
Joplin was only 27 at the time, and her death stunned her fans and the music world, especially considering that it came only 16 days after the sudden death of another rock icon, Jimi Hendrix, who was also 27. Among others, they belong to the “27 Club,” a group of famous people who died at the age of 27.
The Troubadour was where the young Tom Waits made his breakthrough into show business. He met Rickie Lee Jones there, as well as his future manager Herb Cohen. It was where David Geffen discovered him, resulting in a record deal. Up until January 1980 (when he moved to New York), the Troubadour was a second home to Waits.
It was there that he developed a stage persona. Waits recalled in 2002: “I’d come up from San Diego, and I’d take the Greyhound, get off downtown, then take the local all the way out to West Hollywood. I’d get there at nine in the morning and stand in line to go up on stage on Monday night at the Troubadour and play three songs. That’s all you get.”
The Piano Man-made waves when he performed in Los Angeles for the first time in 1972 at the Troubadour during his Cold Spring Harbor tour. Joel signed a recording contract with Columbia Records earlier that year and moved to Los Angeles shortly after.
He lived there for the next three years. For six months, he worked at the Executive Room’s piano bar under the stage name “Bill Martin.” During that time, he wrote his signature hit Piano Man about the bar’s patrons. Piano Man became his first album with Columbia.
The Pointer Sisters made their television debut (on The Helen Reddy Show) with their Troubadour performance. Critics hailed the performance for its versatility and range. The female group was dubbed “the most exciting thing to hit show business in years.”
Their debut album from the same year included the single Yes We Can, Can. A year later, they joined Reddy on the track Showbiz. The Sisters – who went on to achieve worldwide fame – began their vocal training in their father’s church, The Church of God, in West Oakland, California.
On March 12, 1974, the one and only John Lennon and his friend Harry Nilsson were escorted out of the Troubadour for heckling the Smothers Brothers. As the story goes, Nilsson introduced Lennon to the Brandy Alexander cocktail. They were eventually escorted out of the nightclub.
Apparently, they didn’t just relentlessly heckle at the Smothers Brothers, but they also reportedly assaulted a waitress. “I got drunk and shouted,” Lennon later admitted. “It was my first night on Brandy Alexanders – that’s brandy and milk, folks.” He went on to say that his drinking buddy Nilsson “didn’t get as much coverage as [him], the bum.”
Lennon also blamed his friend in a way, saying that he usually has someone who tells him, “Okay, Lennon. Shut up.” But Nilsson encouraged him. As things escalated, Troubadour’s security tried to remove the drunken and enraged Lennon, who was lashing out, losing his eyeglasses in the scuffle.
Then, according to band member Tommy Smothers, Lennon kicked the valet. “My wife ended up with Lennon’s glasses because of the punches that were thrown,” Smothers recalled. Believe it or not, the Smothers Brothers came to Lennon’s defense, suggesting that they had incited Lennon by engaging with him while they were onstage.
The band also accused the media of blowing the whole incident out of proportion. “The heckling got so bad that our show was going downhill rapidly,” Smothers noted. “No one cared because it was just a happening anyway, but there was a scuffle going on, and we stopped the show.”
The Smothers Brothers reportedly received flowers from Lennon and Nilsson the following day. Lennon also wrote an apology letter to actress Pam Grier, who was close when the incident happened and also got ejected from the club. What about the waitress who was reportedly assaulted? The waitress who claimed that Lennon assaulted her had the charges dismissed.
According to Lennon, such a thing never happened at all. And if you ask Tommy Smothers, without his glasses, Lennon couldn’t tell if the person he threw a punch toward was a man or a woman. Lennon later stated that this waitress “just wanted some money, and I had to pay her off because I thought it would harm my immigration.”
But his incident wasn’t the first time Lennon started a ruckus at the Troubadour. A month earlier, a drunk Lennon saw soul singer Ann Peebles perform. He had a sanitary napkin attached to his forehead. When a waitress asked him why he wasn’t leaving a tip on the way out, he asked her, “Do you know who I am?” She called out, “Yes, you’re some a**hole with a Kotex on your head.”
Sometime in March of 1975, Leonard Cohen was performing a five-night stand at the club. And during his sets, he met Phil Spector. Spector invited Cohen to come with him to his Hollywood Hills mansion. Cohen went, and the first thing that struck him was how high Spector cranked up the air-conditioning.
According to Cohen, it was zero degrees Celsius in there. The second thing Cohen noted was how rudely Spector addressed his staff. He wanted to leave, but Spector locked the exits. “Rather than watch you shout at your servants, let’s do something more interesting,” Cohen told him. “And so we sat down at the piano and started writing songs.” A year later, they recorded Death of a Ladies Man.
Rickie Lee Jones’ song Chuck E’s in Love was written about the musician and former Troubadour employee Chuck E. Weiss. Jones and Tom Waits, her then-lover/fellow songwriter, would spend a lot of time hanging out with Weiss at the Tropicana Motel in L.A. Eventually, Weiss disappeared.
Weiss called the apartment where Jones and Waits were living. When Waits answered, Weiss, explained that he was in Denver and had fallen in love with a cousin there. When Waits hung up, he told Jones, “Chuck E.’s in love.” Although the lyrics go “Chuck E.’s in love with the little girl singing this song,” it’s only fictional toward the end of the song. Jones wasn’t the one he was in love with.
In 1979, the Eagles released their single Sad Café, which was written about the Troubadour. It only makes sense that they would write a song about the club where the members first met, after all. Following Don Henley and Glenn Frey’s meeting, they started writing and recruited Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner to form Linda Ronstadt’s backing band before becoming the Eagles.
Oh, it seemed like a holy place
Protected by amazing grace
And we would sing right out loud
The things we could not say
We thought we could change this world
With words like “love” and “freedom.”
We were part of the lonely crowd
Inside the Sad Café
On August 18, 1982, Metallica made their Los Angeles headline debut at the Troubadour. It was Metallica’s second time playing at the Troubadour with RATT and Headshaker. 1982 was the year that the Troubadour started to gain in status with the local, young hard rock and metal acts.
It was becoming the place for them to play, especially when the club down the street, Starwood, had closed and Whisky, a Go Go, was temporarily shuttered. By 1983, Armored Saint also benefited from their live shows at the Troubadour. The local heavy metal scene was buzzing with Motley Crue and Quiet Riot, among others.
On February 28, 1986, Guns N’ Roses played the show that got them signed to Geffen Records. On March 25, 1986, the band got signed to a very special record deal. But it was in March of 1985 that the band played their first Troubadour gig.
The contract they signed was the deal that helped catapult them into worldwide fame and fortune. As soon as David Geffen secured their signatures, word started spreading beyond California about the newest hottest rock band of the ‘80s. They were the attention-grabbing, loud-playing “hair band” of the era.
Guns N’ Roses’ aggressive, in-your-face frontman Axl Rose, along with Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan, and Steven Adler, started gaining a reputation with gigs turned cult favorites around L.A. They would perform at the Troubadour as well as at larger venues like the Roxy and Whiskey a Go-Go.
As word grew louder, A&R record label execs started buzzing around the hive (or swimming around the bay if you want to think of them as sharks). Execs Tom Zutaut and Teresa Ensenat signed the band to a worldwide deal with Geffen. The reported advance was $75,000.
Reports vary as to the official date, but according to the Troubadour’s website, it was on March 10, 1991, that Pearl Jam performed for the first time under their new name. For those who don’t know, the rock group had called themselves Mookie Blaylock up until then.
The band rechristened themselves as Pearl Jam on their first tour in February of 1991. Why Mookie Blaylock? Well, the story has it that the guys in the band found a bunch of old basketball cards, and Mookie Blaylock was one of the players. They liked the name and rolled with it. But I think it’s safe to say that we’re all glad they changed it to Pearl Jam.
The darling bad girl of the ‘90s, Fiona Apple, popped up on the alt-pop scene with her single Criminal, accompanied by an equally sultry music video. Apple, who wrote her debut album in 1996 when she was only 17 and went on a tour that same year, made her live debut at the Troubadour on September 10.
The shy musician took the stage in a midriff-baring outfit. She was 18 by then but led the crowd to believe she was much older. She proved it with songs like Sullen Girl, and The Child Is Gone. Each track she played that night was a live debut of her album Tidal.
Radiohead made their U.S. live debut of their hit album OK Computer, which was their third studio album. Other than the song Lucky, from 1995, Radiohead recorded this album in England in 1996 and early 1997, most of it in the historical mansion of St. Catherine’s Court.
The album has some of the band’s most famous singles, including Paranoid Android, Karma Police, Lucky, and No Surprises. The title OK Computer was taken from the 1978 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series. In it, the character Zaphod Beeblebrox says: “Okay, computer, I want full manual control now.”
Doug Weston, the founder of the storied nightclub, died on Valentine’s Day in 1999. He was 72. As The Times reported, “Doug Weston was arguably the godfather of the Southern California singer-songwriter movement in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.”
It was his “unshakable belief in the inspirational power of music” that made his club a showcase as well as a meeting hall for the “best young talent of a generation.” Weston was proud of the acts and audiences he attracted to his club for over four decades. He once said, pointing to a menu page listing the club’s headliner’s that night: “Look at the list of performers. We like to think of that list as a sort of hall of fame.”
On March 7, 2002, Dave Grohl of Nirvana fame made his first live appearance with Queens of the Stone Age. Grohl, also the Foo Fighters frontman, joined Queens of the Stone Age in late 2001 for their third album, Songs for the Deaf.
Why did Grohl even join the band? Apparently, it’s because he was frustrated with the recording of Foo Fighters’ One by One sessions. He wanted to let off some steam, and getting the call from Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme was exactly what he needed.
On March 11, 2005, Coldplay performed a secret show at the club, debuting five new songs from their third album, X&Y. NME reported that the British band played a “warm-up” at the Troubadour that lasted an hour. The songs they debuted were Square One, White Shadows, and What If.
NME also noted that the band looked nervous at the beginning of their gig, but by the second song, In My Place, all four members were smiling at each other. Chris Martin announced to the crowd: “Well, here we are once again. We can’t quite believe we’re back and playing a concert and that some of you waited since about February.”
Between November 28 and 30, 2007, Troubadour celebrated its 50th anniversary with shows including James Taylor and Carole King recreating their original Troubadour debut together. King and Taylor made their stage debuts there in 1969, which helped them launch their careers.
“Carole and I bump into each other all the time. Each time we meet, it’s always the same: ‘We really ought to get together on stage again,’” Taylor said in a statement before the anniversary performance. “Well, it seems like we finally will… and I can’t wait.”
On February 9, 2010, English group Mumford and Sons performed their debut headlining North American gig at the club. At the sold-out set, singer Marcus Mumford revealed a secret about his past: He was actually born in Anaheim.
As for their first performance on U.S. television, Mumford and Sons played their hit Little Lion Man on Late Show with David Letterman on February 17, 2010. The band had only formed three years earlier. The name comes from Marcus Mumford, who organized the band and their performances – and decided to give it an “antiquated family business name.”
2011 happened to be an eventful year at the Troubadour, for whatever reason. In January, Elton John returned – as a patron – to watch Plan B’s sold-out performance. On Valentine’s Day, Comedian Dave Chappelle played a secret stand-up set.
On May 11, Prince played two surprise shows in one night during his “21-night stand” tour in L.A. On May 23, James Blake made his L.A. debut to a sold-out crowd. He did a cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You when Mitchell herself was in the audience.
In 2013, the club was named by Rolling Stone magazine as “the second-best rock club in America.” On April 25, Rod Stewart made his Troubadour debut with songs from his new album Time. Depeche Mode made their debut at the club the next day, playing But Not Tonight for the first time live since 1986.
Another debut at the Troubadour occurred on May 11 and 12, with Tom Jones playing two nights to promote his new album, Spirit in the Room. Then, on September 3, Nine Inch Nails performed there for their first time, celebrating the release of their new album Hesitation Marks.
Only two shows were recorded in 2020 on the Troubadour’s websites. The first was on January 20, when BMG hosted their annual Pre-Grammy party. Among the featured appearances were Jessie Reyez, India. Arie, Lewis Capaldi, Lindsay Ell, and Billy Ray Cyrus.
On January 25, the setlist included John Prine, Andrew Bird, Iron & Wine, Rhiannon Giddens, Shooter Jennings, Joe Henry, Amos Lee, Yola, Ida Mae, I’m With her, Calexico and The War and Treaty, Madison Cunningham, Sierra Ferrell, and Francesco Turrisi.
Fingers crossed for the future of the Troubadour.